Botnets Behind Georgian Attacks Offer Clues

Scrutiny of botnet activity indicates Russia's attacks on Georgia weren't state-sponsored

At a closed-door Internet security summit in Estonia this week, a researcher will reveal new findings on the botnets behind the cyber-attacks on the former Soviet republic of Georgia that began last month and remains under way today. (See Georgian Government, News Sites Under Cyber Attack.)

Arbor Networks researchers Danny McPherson and Jose Nazario say that their latest findings indicate Georgia retaliated by waging some distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks of its own on Russian Websites. The researchers found no evidence that Russia’s attacks on Georgia -- nor Georgia's responses -- were full-blown, state-sponsored cyber-warfare.

McPherson will present this new research on Thursday at the Internet Security Operations and Intelligence summit in Tallinn, Estonia.

At the height of the attacks last month, the Georgian government issued a statement from a temporary Website saying that its sites and some Georgian news sites were under a coordinated denial-of-service attack from Russia. The attacks started in July with a DDOS on the president of Georgia’s Website.

Nazario, security researcher for Arbor, says the Georgian president’s Website, Georgian ministries, and other sites there are still under DDOS attack.

And the researchers discovered a couple of botnets that have been DDOS’ing both .ru (Russian) and .ge (Georgian) hosts, suggesting that the attacks may be the work of instigators from outside both governments. “We have further strengthened our feeling that this is non-state actors at this time. But we don’t know why the botnets struck. Was it nationalism? Was it anger? Or was it for-hire? We don’t know and we may never know,” Nazario says.

The Russian-run Machbot botnet was behind the July attacks on the Georgian president’s site, the researchers say. “Machbot is primarily a Web-based Russian DDOS botnet written in Russian, used by several different groups, but not widely available,” says McPherson, chief research officer for Arbor. “These were the first attacks we observed that appeared to be related to this conflict. Interestingly, the C&C [command and control] of Machbot is located in the U.S.”

The Arbor researchers warned back in January that Machbot and other Web-based botnets from Russia could signal the arrival of larger and more politically motivated DDOS attacks worldwide. (See DDOS Botnets Thriving, Threatening.)

One of those botnets, Black Energy, was a key player in the Georgian DDOS strikes. At their peak, the Georgian attacks hit 800 Mbit/s, eight times larger than the attacks on Estonia. But the peak attack duration was six hours, which was shorter than the peak in Estonia, Nazario says. “There were more botnets, it seems, than there were in the Estonia” attacks, he says.

While the botnets waged brute-force attacks, the targets they went after weren’t especially sensitive, he says. “Almost none of [the sites] were required for daily operations,” Nazario says.

McPherson says he didn’t see much volunteer bot activity, despite reports that some Russians were offering up their machines to DDOS Georgia. “There were lots of invitations sent, as with Estonia, and perhaps even more. We didn't see any indication of a large number of these types of participants this time around,” he says.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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